Seo Jeong-ju’s Literary Peers

The oeuvre of “Midang” Seo Jeong-ju (1915-2000) constitutes the great mountain range of 20th century Korean literature: towering, vast, stretching powerfully into the distance. And, like many trees and plants living in the area, successive generations of poets grew up within its fold. In this respect, Seo Jeong-ju can be called the father of Korean poetry. His creative period lasted almost seventy years, and during this time, he released fifteen poetry collections and more than 1,000 poems. Now, a twenty-volume complete edition of his collected works will be published in commemoration of the centennial of his birth.

     Midang Seo Jeong-ju’s poetry has no antecedents. From the time he started out, Seo’s inimitable style set him apart from poets of previous generations. In his first collection, Hwasajip (1941), written in a rugged, aggressive hand, he brought form to the churning vortex of emotions and human sexual desire. Existential individuality, anxious and agonized, suffering the coexistence of contradictory qualities, can be found throughout these poems. The emergence of such a distinctive artistic voice was also the signal shot indicating that Korean poetry had entered the modern age. Speaking figuratively, one could say that his work represented the birth of the complex system in the field of Korean literature.

     Seo appreciated the work of older contemporaries such as Kim Sowol (1902-1934), Joo Yohan (1900- 1979), and Kim Yeongrang (1903-1950), but he did not follow directly in their footsteps. Moreover, he resolved to outdo Chong Chi-yong, a poet at the forefront of Korean modernism who put a premium on technical brilliance. Rather, Seo’s early poetry originates somewhere outside of the bounds of Korean literature. His major influences include the works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Baudelaire, Hugo, and Li Po; the philosophy of Nietzsche touching on the world of Greek myths, and Zarathustra, the Overman; and the ideas of Siddhartha.

     From the moment he debuted as a poet, he could be called a genius. Establishing his distinctive artistic personality, portraying Eastern and Western values mixed together in anxious turmoil, Seo started to soar high above the contemporary literary horizon. From the time he released his second poetry collection, he strove to be faithful to an aesthetic that could be called Eastern, Korean, and traditional. By taking refuge in the atmosphere and form of traditional lyric poetry, he reached the core of Korean literature, strongly influencing the writers who followed after him.

     Among contemporary poets, his ideological and emotional leanings were similar to those of the Green Deer Group (Cheongnokpa), consisting of Pak Mogwol, Pak Tu-jin, and Cho Chi-hun. Far removed from the revolt against social inequality and class struggle, these poets cultivated an environmentally-friendly attitude, a longing and nostalgia for folk communalism, and an appreciation for the aesthetic properties of language itself.

For all intents and purposes, Seo Jeong-ju and the Green Deer Group became the vanguards of Korean modernism. With the outbreak of the Korean War, not only did the country become divided, but many senior literary figures became Communists, and for this reason, the young poets ended up taking on the mantles of the great masters. They also became professors at the top private universities, where they came to exercise powerful leadership and influence.

     Seo’s brand value consisted of tradition and lyricism. The theme of tradition, in particular, did not originate with Seo, so using this as a focal point, we can naturally trace his position within a web of like-minded senior and contemporary writers. If we focus on shamanism, which can be considered an indigenous Korean belief system, then Kim Sowol, Kim Tong-ni, and Baek Seok should be mentioned as Seo’s contemporaries. Kim Sowol sought to identify the importance of the spirit with the creative principle in his own poetry. Kim T...